Enormous Sunken Treasure Claim Conceded, Thirty Years On
Government of Colombia lawyers concede salvage company Sea Search Armada to be rightful owner of 50% of treasure proceeds.
Lawyers representing the Government of Colombia (GOC) admitted recently in a U.S. court that Sea Search Armada (SSA), engaged in a long-running suit with Colombia, was the rightful owner of 50 percent of the proceeds of perhaps the most valuable sunken treasure in history. This is the first time representatives of the government have conceded this point in over 30 years of legal wrangling.
The admission came in oral arguments before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Washington, D.C. over the validity of SSA's suit. While still disputing SSA's claim, the GOC lawyer clarified that any part of the treasure, were it to be recovered and be identified as Columbian – described as the country's patrimony – would not be shared.
The ship in question is the San Jose, one of several Spanish galleons sunk off the coast of Colombia in 1708 during a war between Spain and Britain. Estimated to be carrying over two tons of platinum along with substantial quantities of gold and emeralds, the current value of the treasure is estimated to be in excess of $17 billion.
SSA and the GOC initially were partners in exploring for the wreck which was discovered in 1981. At that time, Colombia was following international custom and had agreed it would split the proceeds with SSA if the wreck were found. Members of the Colombian Navy accompanied the search. (Under well established maritime law, it is customary for countries to grant salvage rights in exchange for half of the proceeds.)
The SSA team located the San Jose in more than 800 feet of water about five miles off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia. Because of the cost and complexity of the salvage, time was required to arrange for investors and the specialized equipment.
Before the specialized salvage could be initiated, however, the Colombian government decided it would ignore the original agreement and would claim all of the treasure except for a 5% finder's fee. Subsequent GOC presidents supported the confiscation, later ruled illegal by the Colombian Constitutional Court and Supreme Court. However, the GOC has ignored the ruling.
SSA appeals for help from the U.S. government have not been fruitful. Although some Members of Congress signed a petition supporting the Americans' claim, Congress never voted on the issue.
Said SSA's attorney James DelSordo , "Although we are gratified at this recognition, my clients would like to finally end this interminable legal battle and get to the business of recovering a ship wreck that has sometimes been termed 'the holy grail' of lost treasures."